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WEDNESDAY, Oct. 4, 2017 (HealthDay News) -- Recovering from a heart attack can be a long, painful process, and now a new study finds that almost one-quarter of those patients who returned to work ultimately left their jobs over the following year.
The findings suggest that "even though patients return to work after a heart attack, they may still require individual adjustments at their workplaces in order to stay employed," said study author Dr. Laerke Smedegaard Petersen. She is a graduate student at Copenhagen University Hospital in Denmark.
An estimated 676,000 people in the United States survive heart attacks each year, according to the American Heart Association. Many survivors are of working age: The average age of heart attack is 65 for men and 72 for women, the association says.
The new study examined the medical and work records of over 22,000 patients in Denmark who were employed before suffering heart attacks between 1997 and 2012.
Of those, 91 percent returned to work within a year. But within a year of going back to work, 24 percent of the patients had left their jobs. That's three times the normal rate of leaving a job, the researchers reported. It's not clear, however, whether the heart attack survivors quit their jobs, or were fired or laid off.
Patients aged 30 to 39 and 60 to 65, and those who had heart failure, diabetes or depression, were especially likely to leave their jobs. Workers with higher incomes and more education were more likely to stay on the job, the findings showed.
Petersen said the percentage of heart attack patients who return to work and then leave their jobs may be even higher in the United States.
"In Denmark, all citizens have equal access to health care and all patients receive treatment free of charge," she explained.
One U.S. expert said the findings are sobering.
"The study is an important reminder that recovery is often measured in months and years, not just weeks," said Dr. Harlan Krumholz, director of the Center for Outcomes Research and Evaluation at Yale-New Haven Hospital in Connecticut.
"To understand the impact of a heart attack requires that we fully understand people's roles and function. We should study how best to help people fully resume their prior activities and have the choice as to whether they want to continue working," Krumholz explained.
Karina Davidson, executive director of Columbia University's Center for Behavioral Cardiovascular Health, said fatigue and an inability to perform manual labor are some of the reasons why heart attack survivors leave their jobs.
"Patients after a heart attack do indeed have a long road to recovery, and cardiac rehabilitation, strong family support and follow-up with their medical care are important components to ensure the best recovery possible," she said. "Returning to work full-time will be realistic for some patients, but not for all."
The study was published Oct. 4 in the Journal of the American Heart Association.
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SOURCES: Laerke Smedegaard Petersen, M.D., graduate student, department of cardiology, Copenhagen University Hospital, Denmark; Harlan Krumholz, professor, Yale University, and director, Center for Outcomes Research and Evaluation, Yale-New Haven Hospital, Connecticut; Karina Davidson, Ph.D., professor, behavioral medicine in medicine & psychiatry, and executive director, Center for Behavioral Cardiovascular Health, Columbia University, New York City; Oct. 4, 2017, Journal of the American Heart Association, online